When Jim Pfaendtner stood to welcome a room of first-year engineering and computer science students during a program on campus in August, he began with some common ground.
Just like you, Pfaendtner said, I am new to NC State. He was three weeks into his term as the Louis Martin-Vega Dean of Engineering and told the students that they probably know more about the University than he does.
During his remarks, Pfaendtner mentioned the achievements of previous engineering and computer science graduates, but acknowledged that even those high achievers had to struggle at times. He emphasized what a life-changing experience college can be and sought to combat the feeling experienced by some students in STEM courses that they shouldn’t be there — often referred to as imposter syndrome — by assuring them that “you belong here, and we could not be more excited to welcome you.” He highlighted the importance of mental health and how he has learned to manage his own challenges.
Pfaendtner comes to NC State University from the University of Washington (UW), where he served most recently as chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering (CHE) and the Steven R. and Connie R. Rogel Endowed Professor. He succeeds Louis Martin-Vega, who led the College for 17 years before stepping down as dean in summer 2023.
Pfaendtner takes the helm at an important time for the College. Martin-Vega’s lengthy tenure included growth and improvement across the board, from enrollment and national rankings to research capacity and diversity. Most of the College has now made the move to Centennial Campus.
And thanks to a state initiative called Engineering North Carolina’s Future, the College aims to grow its enrollment by 40 percent over the next few years. In looking for an engineering dean, NC State leadership hoped to find the perfect person to lead the College through that growth and build on the positive momentum in place.
During the first-year welcome, Pfaendtner went on to deliver a message of encouragement for students that may have struck a different tone than the one sometimes given by deans of previous generations. Talk to older engineering graduates, and they sometimes relate a similar memory. A dean gathers first-year students together early in the school year and offers an ominous warning about the difficulty of the degree program: look to your left, look to your right — those students will not make it through this program.
Pfaendtner offered a different take on that message, built for a different world of STEM education that still offers a rigorous educational program but with supports that were not there for previous generations and with an increased focus on student success.
Look to your left. Look to your right, went this new version of the message from the dean.
“Here’s the awesome thing, every one of you has a spot in NC State’s College of Engineering,” the new dean said. “We picked you for a reason. You individually earned your spot.”
A dean in the lab
Like many career engineers, Pfaendtner can point to childhood memories of taking things apart and trying to put them back together again. In one memorable case, it was a computer that his father, a manufacturing engineer, brought to their home in western Michigan. Dad returned to find the computer’s innards spread out on the kitchen table.
“There was no internet, so I didn’t know how to put it back together,” Pfaendtner recalls. “We eventually got it back together, but it didn’t make Dad very happy.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and after a few years in industry, Pfaendtner decided that research and teaching were his calling. He did a Ph.D. at Northwestern University and, after a postdoctoral fellowship, Pfaendtner joined the faculty at UW in 2009.
He rose quickly in academic administration, first as director of the graduate program in CHE and as associate vice provost for research computing, then as chair of his department in 2019.
Pfaendtner’s research involves using computer simulations to better understand molecular science, with a range of applications that includes energy storage and wearable health-monitoring technology. It’s an exciting time for the field, he said, because of recent advancements in computing capacity and artificial intelligence.
The new dean plans to continue his research program in NC State’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, just at a smaller scale. He wants to carry on several projects and be involved in training new researchers, but also sees it as part of his onboarding process.
“There’s no better way for me to know what it’s like to be a professor at NC State than to do research at NC State,” he said.
When appointed as department chair at UW, Pfaendtner made two commitments: that he would continue teaching and that he would continue his research program, said Elizabeth Nance, Jagjeet and Janice Bindra Endowed Career Development Professor in the same department. That commitment earned a level of buy-in and understanding from colleagues in the department, said Nance, who earned her undergraduate degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering from NC State before getting a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University.
“He was trying to show that you can be a holistic administrator,” Nance said. “Yes, it’s a hard thing to do, but as an administrator it’s very impactful.”
The right place
Pfaendtner has also committed to be the faculty advisor for the student CrossFit Club on campus (it’s a high-intensity exercise program that mixes cardio and strength training and gives participants a chance to connect with each other). He also enjoys video games (PlayStation is his platform of choice) and is active on social media (we’ve listed his handles here so you can follow along).
- Instagram: @jpfaendtner
- X (formerly Twitter): @JimPfaendtner
- Threads: @jpfaendtner
- LinkedIn: jim-pfaendtner-063a9720
Colleagues like Nance describe an energetic, engaging leader who is people-oriented and interested in building systems that make others successful. He is decisive, but won’t make that decision without thorough input from his team, said Daniel Ratner, professor of bioengineering and associate dean for academic affairs in UW’s College of Engineering.
Ratner recalls a time during the latter parts of the Covid pandemic, when the staff and faculty had been through the ringer trying to balance work and personal lives, that Pfaendtner asked the people in his department to share goals with him.
“The first thing he said was ‘You’re going to tell us what you’re not going to do this year and still be sustainable,’” Ratner said. “I loved the fact that he was asking that question.”
Ratner, in an interview during summer 2023, also identified Pfaendtner’s love of teaching and mentorship, his love of being a professor.
“Jim loves being faculty,” Ratner said. “His identity is faculty. He is faculty.”
Pfaendtner describes a personal calling toward higher education and identifies another core belief: “Engineering degrees are the most important thing for upward social mobility. I believe it in my bones.”
In NC State, he saw an institution that’s on the rise and that is very good at what he loved about UW: equal commitment to the missions of both groundbreaking research and serving the people of the state by offering an education that can be life changing to as many students as possible.
As he told those first-year students on campus, NC State Engineering’s new dean feels that he is in exactly the right place.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say this is my dream job. I’m so thrilled to be here and so excited to work with you.”
This post was originally published in College of Engineering News.